Former Russian Governor Sergei Furgal was sentenced last week to 22 years in a high-security penal colony. A jury convicted him of organizing two murders and an attempted murder in 2004-2005. Furgal became one of the 34 Russian regional heads and 19 serving governors to be prosecuted in post-Soviet Russia — and his sentence is the most severe in the country’s history.
- Furgal was regarded as “the People’s Governor” of the Khabarovsk region, a region in Russia’s Far East. He did not always enjoy such popular acclaim: in the 2018 elections, he was a Duma deputy from the LDPR and served as a convenient sparring partner for the serving governor. He then unexpectedly won an election to become governor, largely because he was an attractive alternative candidate for the protest vote in the region. The Kremlin responded by stripping Khabarovsk of its status as the capital of the Far East Federal District.
- In his new role as governor, Furgal started attending local protests and criticizing local officials. His ratings soared and, at times, he was even more popular than Putin. Moreover, Furgal was popular beyond Khabarovsk and citizens across Russia spoke of him as a potential future president. For example, members of a focus group in Moscow noted his achievements (reducing salaries for officials, introducing free meals for children) and commented on his popularity in Khabarovsk. They also said that Furgal “doesn’t hide himself” (during the pandemic, Putin stopped appearing in public) and since “the people are for him,” he was doing all the right things.
- After Furgal was arrested in early July 2020, Khabarovsk residents organized constant protests in his defense, which lasted more than 150 days. But the popularity of these rallies gradually declined: if they started with crowds of 20-30,000 people, the last protests attracted 100-150 diehards. They were unable to save the governor and at the end of July, Putin named Mikhail Degryarev, another LDPR member, as interim governor. He had no connection to the region, which he had visited just once, and previously he stood as a spoiler candidate in Moscow’s 2013 and 2018 mayoral elections, coming in last both times. However, he won the 2021 Khabarovsk gubernatorial election against the backdrop of a purge of Furgal’s supporters and open antipathy toward the “incomer” from many local residents.
- The case against Furgal was largely built on the testimony of his former business partner and former deputy in the local Duma, Nikolai Mistryukov, who was arrested in 2019. The investigation believes that they organized the assassinations of Khabarovsk businessmen in 2004-2005 due to personal conflicts and business rivalries. Furgal pleaded not guilty. “Your honor, the verdict is clear. Only one thing is unclear: Aren’t you ashamed of this verdict?” the former governor said at his sentencing in Moscow.
Why the world should care
Furgal is one of many Russian regional leaders to have ended up in jail. Less than a year after his arrest, the head of the Penza region, Ivan Belozertsev, was arrested. He now faces charges of bribery and illegal possession of weapons. “The position of a Russian governor is truly in the firing line,” prominent political journalist Farida Rustamova wrote on her Telegram channel.